Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Notes on a Scandal: MAY DECEMBER

Todd Haynes is a modern master of melodrama, with films that thrive in the tension of societal norms straining to restrain his characters’ natural drives toward it. In his latest film May December, an actress arrives at the home of a family that was once the center of tabloid controversy in hopes of shadowing them for her latest movie role based on their scandal. The actress (Natalie Portman) has only surface-level questions to ask, and a kind of guileless confidence in her ability to soak up something real from the quotidian observations she’ll grok just by hanging around. The matriarch of the family (Julianne Moore), a dotty housewife with a flailing bakery business and a wispy lisping affect, just hopes the movie star won’t be rude (like Judge Judy), and that she’ll play fair with the facts of her life as she sees them. You see, her affair with her much younger husband (Charles Melton) started when he was in 7th grade. They got married after her release from prison, where she had their first child, and weathered a storm of national news attention. She doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with that. Now he’s barely cracked his mid-30s and their offspring are graduating high school. For his part, he really loves his teenage kids, but it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that these fresh-faced youngsters are now older than their dad was when they were born. As the movie draws out his hobby of raising caterpillars to release as butterflies, it’s clear he’s been stunted in his cocoon by the unacknowledged abuse that’s shaped the majority of his life. Meanwhile, when not interviewing the woman’s estranged first family, the actress hovers on the margins of family life for a few weeks, watching in scenes of live wire discomfort as the dysfunction inherent in this family dynamic ripples and bubbles beneath metric tons of denial. The homogenizing force of suburban normality is stretched to the breaking point for these people—and the Savannah setting gives it a sense of oceanfront Southern Gothic as two phonies circle each other and the rest are adrift in the consequences.

Haynes stages scenes with elaborate framing for straight-faced jaw-dropping confessions and twisting entanglements of exploitation. (In tone, it’s somehow the perfect equidistant midpoint between Douglas Sirk’s Eisenhower-era stiffness and John Waters’ lurid vulgarity, right next to Pedro Almodovar in its tightly controlled stylish displays of repressions and unspoken depravities of character.) The lines between actress and her subjects get blurry, especially as the women seem to trade traits—listen to how that lisp drifts between them!—and Haynes loads the frames with mirrors and reflections and cameras and lenses. It’s all about image in that ineffable way. Isn’t that a typically Haynes subject, though? Here’s another of his seductively unsettling melodramas about the tragedy of being unable to recognize your true self behind the artifice you’ve built up around yourself. Like the Barbie doll Carpenters in his experimental Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story or the frosty domestic noirs of his Mildred Pierce or Carol, or the suffocating Sirkian vibrancy in Far From Heaven, he’s once more pinning his characters down with empathetic archness. Here it’s simultaneously moving and at a distance, and often darkly hilarious, in a gripping style pulsing with raw emotion beneath the surface. He uses stinging, borrowed piano cues on the score and a kind of hazy softness to the frames, like he’s dredging up dark truths through the scrim of a 90s ripped-from-the-headlines made-for-TV movie. And yet, by Samy Burch’s emotionally complex screenplay setting the action of the story two decades past its central scandal, and making explicit the ways in which attempting to fictionalize such sensationalized real world melodrama inevitably falls short, it makes for a movie using that distancing effect to be more invested in the long ugly aftermath. That roils underneath the apparent, twisted normality that’s settled over the pain, and no empty gestures of family life or hollow Hollywood artifice can fill that emptiness.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Infinity and Bey-ond: RENAISSANCE

Beyoncé is the auteur of Beyoncé. She’s the director, on screen and off. Her public persona has been tightly controlled as she’s been able to consolidate all that power herself. She makes music, yes—among the catchiest of pulse-pounding danceable pop and soaring melodic ballads this century. But she’s also fashionable, political, and historical, alive and aware to her continuity as a brand, as a person, and as the latest in a long lineage of cultural figures. She’s an icon and knows it. Ever since she started directing her own film projects, she’s more or less stopped giving interviews. Her movies are the message. Think of the stirring visual album Lemonade, and the echoes in the similar project Black is King, engaged with a fluidity of persona in conversation with the solid truths of Black womanhood in America and in diaspora. Her Homecoming captured her career capstone Coachella performance—her own Eras-spanning set—clad in the garbs of Bey-centric Greek-life sweatshirts and short-shorts riffing on looks from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, complete with a brassy marching band and rat-a-tat drumline for backup. Throughout, these cinematic works prove Beyoncé has a keen directorial eye, staging eye-popping images and resonant symbolism with the same layered pleasures she brings to her music. She knows how to pose, how to style, how to draw the eye, and make it all swell with meaning. She’s cultivating an image, to be sure. But just when we might start wondering about the slick elisions (she's strangely vague about the "difficult times" we've been through lately; supply your own cultural context, I guess), the music starts pumping again—the thudding, insistent, endless beat booming with the force of subwoofer in your rib cage and begging you to bust a move.

When it comes to Renaissance, a rebirth into a self-proclaimed looser, freer Beyoncé, and a shared space for her fans to celebrate themselves in the presence of her self, she’s building on all she’s shown before with a new openness. It’s still brand management. The modern star on her level is also a corporation, after all. But here she’s more willing than ever to show us the whole ecosystem it takes to help her look and sound this good. And how hard she’ll fight for her vision. The spine of the movie is a loud, energetic capture of her latest tour—a massive arena undertaking bringing her latest album to the stage. Throughout she threads behind-the-scenes vignettes. We see rehearsals, meet backup dancers and singers, technicians on stage and off. We see her family—none cuter than her kids mimicking her dance moves from some anonymous room behind the show. She talks about her inspirations, about growing up, references moments from her career. We see archival footage, sometimes popping as flashes of memory echoing a big hit—a glimpse of filming the “Crazy in Love” music video, of TV appearances, of a little girl dancing in the backyard. Look where I’ve been, she seems to be saying. And look what I can do now—a mature artist fully embodied in herself and comfortable with what she can bring and say to the world.

This all deepens and enriches the experience of the main event. She’s a performer of remarkable consistency. It’s a show of sweat and energy and propulsive dancing and soaring vocals. The fashions are elaborate—and with a myriad of costume changes even between shows, and she loves showing that off with satisfying match cuts between nights revealing new stunning outfits, a Homecoming trick oft and well repeated here to more elaborate effect. She’s in full control, even when celebrating a concert and album, and her house music tribute within, that pounds with a sweaty club beat dripping in modes of shimmery disco and drag ballrooms and girl groups—all manner of eclectic and authentic tastes synthesized in a style all her own. The concert itself embraces the contradictions of Beyoncé. She’s somehow fresh and retro. She’s a soft-spoken private person and a brilliantly loud show-off performer. She’s a pneumatic technical hard-edged Afro-futurist precision machine—literal digital robots tower on video screens over her in snaky glows. And she’s a warm, soft, organic mother imbued with and empowered by a rich cultural heritage. She’s a vulgar, earthy sensualist and a shimmering spiritual beacon of pure love. She’s a bootylicious twerker and a beatific familial homebody. She’s a benign cult leader unto herself and totemic conduit for bigger ideas outside herself. Renaissance—the movie, the tour, the album—doesn’t resolve these tensions, but expresses them, explodes them, explores them. And it has that huge walloping beat urging us to pop ecstatics.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Cruel Bummer: SALTBURN

After two films, writer-director Emerald Fennell’s signature appears to be staging social satires with only a glancing understanding of society, ending in twists that call into question what in the world the earlier commentary was supposed to be setting up in the first place. Her Promising Young Woman had such a promising premise—a woman vigilante-style shaming male misbehavior—completely sunk by a choppy execution, complete with following up a take-down of systemic prejudice leaning on said system to solve things in its climactic surprises. What? Now here’s Saltburn, a much better movie on the whole, if only because it has more enjoyable surface pleasures of gleaming craftsmanship and gutsy arch performances. But that doesn’t mean it makes the points it thinks It’s making. I’ll get into that later. The movie comes on strong as sensual and prickly, and self-consciously arty with its grainy squared-off images, elliptical cutting, and woozy pop-heavy soundscapes, as it sets up a clear, Brit-focused, dark and dripping class comedy. It grooves on its cruel streak spectacle for a while, as a lower-class university student (Barry Keoghan) is invited to spend vacation at the palatial estate of a rich classmate (Jacob Elordi). A whole host of quirky, pampered, indulgent characters live there—from an icy mother (Rosamund Pike) to a dotty dad (Richard E. Grant), a teasing sister (Alison Oliver), a sassy quip machine family friend (Carey Mulligan), and a butler (Paul Rhys). We see Keoghan’s pathetic character obviously lusting after their privilege as he worms his way into their lives. Usually this sort of class commentary uses the allure of riches to shame the rich for their obliviousness, and/or the poor for coveting such worldly treasures. Here Fennel flips the script, for a movie that ultimately seems to say, gee, the rich sure are eccentric with their hollow parties and conspicuous consumption, but it is the sneaky underclass for which you have to watch out. There’s a reason why that’s not the thrust of these stories. It’s almost a shame, then, that so many seductive shallow thrills are sent in pursuit of such a flawed premise. You can swoon on those surfaces—the shine of the images, the venal bon mots, the performances of charm and charisma, and physical beauty lit like a perfume commercial. Keoghan, especially, finds new fearless ways to put himself on display—never more than his impressively bare final scene that leaves quite an impression. All that can be fun on a moment by moment basis. But it’s all for naught if the foundation on which these enjoyable details are built is so fundamentally cracked.

Friday, November 24, 2023


If you needed a reminder that The Hunger Games remains a bracing and bleak blockbuster series with sharp-angled political ideas, here’s a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, to make its dystopian metaphors resonate anew. It takes us back to the world of Panem—a future United States where the gaudy one-percenters in the Capitol rule the rest of the country’s districts through intimidation. The centerpiece of their plan is the regular Hunger Games competitions wherein tributes chosen randomly from the youth of each district are forced to fight to the death in gladiatorial combat broadcast propagandistically, reality TV style. This new movie, once again based on a Suzanne Collins’ novel, is set in the early days of the Games, when their evil rules and cruel complications are still being codified. Where the later movies are vast sci-fi spectacles with high-tech arenas and a powerful undercurrent of rebellion fomenting in the districts, this one takes place in the shattered aftermath of a war. Freedoms have only recently been curtailed for the masses, and, despite their overwhelming victory, the wealthy capitol citizens still feel a poisoned, righteous anger at the violence incurred by the recently beaten-down people in the heavily-policed cities, open-air prisons effectively, that have become the tightly controlled and patrolled districts. This positioning relative to the original series of films gives the proceedings a sick, pit-in-the-stomach feeling of an inevitable slide into authoritarianism that won’t be substantially confronted for a few generations.

Making matters more morally complicated: the protagonist is an 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), who will grow up to be a central villain in the original stories. We meet him as an impoverished, disadvantaged capitol boy struggling to get a foothold in the elite of his society. To do so, he’s throws himself into a new job: mentoring a tribute in the year’s games. He’s quickly infatuated with his assigned player, a fetching, scrappy, singing underdog (Rachel Zegler), and the film’s tension is suffused with a stifled romantic tragedy. Will he cling to his sympathies for her, no matter how tinged with selfishness, and help her survive, or will he get lost in the dictates of the games as his only ticket to a wealthy life? The games here are simpler, harsher, more contained and personal for the players. Cruel gamemaster Viola Davis with an enormous frizzy grey wig, two different eye colors, and blood-red rubber gloves—she chews every line like it’s a bitter hard candy—just wants to put on a violent spectacle to keep the oppressed and oppressors alike hooked on the show. (The footage we see of the pre-game interviews looks like watching old American Idol clips on YouTube.) The school’s sharp-tongued, alcoholic dean (Peter Dinklage) semi-reluctantly serves up his rich students to guide the slaughter for a televised event (hosted by a perfectly smarmy Jason Schwartzman) for the first time. They represent a status Snow desperately wants, and though he has a close friend (Josh Andrés Rivera) who voices dissent about the morality of the games, we can see this flickering conflict in his conscience slowly ice over in his eyes. In his plight, we see how the institutions of fascism encourage a steady erasure of empathy. The cruelty is the point.

Returning director Francis Lawrence frames this in a familiar style, fitting the series’ usual slick imagination and populist Hollywood aesthetics. It’s gripping, exciting, propulsive stuff, but done with a slower melancholic sense of creeping despair. The prequel status runs the imagery back, though, trading the high-tech future metropolis of the earlier films for a more mid-century look—contrasting a bluegrass folksiness of the districts with a palatial dilapidated art deco decadence in the hyper-capitalist capitol. As the film stretches on, it starts to feel like a darkly doomed romantic epic, with scenes in backrooms and clandestine meetings, especially once out in the wilds of the rural hideaways, that start to gather shades of World War II resistance dramas and grey Soviet thrillers, a gnarled sense of a character study ground down in the inevitable march of historical forces beyond any one’s control. These figures are caught up in systems larger than themselves, in a world that takes their impulses to rebel, and to care, and turns it against them in service of the system itself. Betrayal and spectacle run the plot, and the world, in this dystopian vision that leaves hope a fragile, flickering flame that’ll wait decades to spark anew. We can see it in their eyes, and in the echoing screams resonating through the forest. Zegler sells the folkloric resistance pricking at the conscience of the capitol, while Blyth plays the creeping cruelty that threatens to thaw before growing all the colder. They both want the best, but fear, assume, the worst. Here’s a big-scale Hollywood entertainment about how difficult it is to stop an authoritarian noose already tightening. Would that we learn its lessons in time.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023


With The Killer, David Fincher renews his status as the premiere name in luxury brand pulp fiction. Here’s a film of cool surfaces and methodical plotting and a constant low-level thrum of tension. The lead character is a hit man who we meet as he sits in an abandoned Parisian WeWork loft, fastidiously and patiently waiting to snipe some rich guy in the penthouse across the nondescript street. Michael Fassbender plays the assassin-for-hire as a hollow-point threat, a no-nonsense man of coiled readiness, prepared to spring into action, but more often than sitting in ominous stillness ready to check off each step of his deadly to-do list. This hit goes wrong, though, and his mystery client subsequently tries to have him killed. So now the hit man turns on the client and works his way up the food chain to find him. (In that way, it’s also a movie about a gig economy worker deciding to stop freelancing and go it alone.) Each victim is reason for a well-cast supporting actor (Charles Parnell, Arliss Howard, and Tilda Swinton are among the instantly compelling figures) to make a quick, memorable impression in a scene or two before the inevitable threat of violence crescendoes. 

That’s a pretty simple, predictable, and familiar story for this sort of thriller. But each sequence is made with the bespoke attentiveness that Fincher is best known for. This is a film of icy remove and precise, digital sheen. Each image, each cut, clacks into place with eerie forward momentum and chilly matter-of-fact suspense. It may not reach the virtuosic heights—or is that more accurately the visceral, propulsive, twisting lows?—of his Gone Girl or Se7en, though it shares the latter’s screenwriter. But, as a return to form for a master of this form, its low-key, high-style blend functions as a sharp-angled pleasure from frame one to final cut to black. It’s Le Samourai plotting by way of Fight Club adjacent tone, with the surface cool of a terse Jean-Pierre Melville procedural animated by a terse, chatty, unreliable Gen-X voice over. Can this empty man of action ever find peace? He thinks so, controlling variables with his repetition and routine, reducing the mess of life and death into a checklist. He does yoga, builds his rifle, plugs in his playlist of The Smiths, and off he goes. Of course it’s not that easy. The film enjoys setting up complications and watching step by step as the killer thinks his way out. In the end, it’s another of Fincher’s pictures of process that has the luxury to be both admiring and afraid of what its lead can do.

Saturday, November 11, 2023


The Marvels arrives on a wave of bad buzz for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has fans and critics and showbiz reporters wringing their hands about the troubled state of the series. What once prided itself on a kind of comic-book style improvised cross-over continuity has floundered as the movies and TV shows have felt less connected. And even when parts of a particular project hit big financially or creatively, which seems to happen less and less, there’s a prevailing sense of diminishment. (It’s easy enough to forget the pretty darn satisfying Guardians of the Galaxy 3 was released a mere 6 months ago.) The newest feature will do nothing to calm fans fears that this whole thing is on its way out. This effort to draw together threads from a variety of projects—it’s a direct sequel to both Captain Marvel and Avengers Endgame, pulls in television characters like the charming teen lead of Ms. Marvel and a key supporting player from WandaVision, and finds cameos from two other movies and one other show—plays like a heavily recut compromise that’ll please no one. Writer-director Nia DaCosta's underlying concept is clever enough: flying, energy-beaming Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) realizes her heroism from her first film inadvertently destabilized a planet’s ecosystem and created a new villain’s need to plunder resources from other planets. Said plundering leads to an accident in which Marvel gets her powers entangled with the two TV superheroes (Iman Vellani and Teyonah Parris), so now they switch places every time they try to use their super-talents. There’s a hint of clever body-switching stuff and some potentially provocative ideas about intractable intergalactic conflicts. There’s a role for Samuel L. Jackson to stand around, and some funny sitcom ideas floating around Ms. Marvel’s charming family. But everything is flattened by the hurrying nonsense plotting, deadeningly empty spectacle, and endless pattering exposition papering over leaps of logic and incomplete ideas. Even then there’s barely coherence to the jumble, leading to what’s less a story, more a number of sequences scotch-taped together as a string of random moments. Everything lands with a thud. It takes several planets near, to, or beyond the point of apocalypse with a shrug, and slams three charming leads off of each other with flat jokes and paint-by-numbers character beats instead of developing actual chemistry. It skips over the surface of every idea, and shreds every good concept under the weight of hurrying into the next scene. I watched in growing dismay as it sat dead and lifeless on screen. Even its attempts to shoehorn in fan-flattering cameos and long-awaited teases for future plot lines play limply, doomed to go nowhere and please no one. Its end credits scene feels like less of a promise and more like a threat to pile on complications past the point we care. I don’t think the MCU is doomed quite yet, but a few more flailing projects like this will do the trick.

Sunday, October 29, 2023


There’s a storm on the plains. Thunder and lightening rumble in the distance. Rain drops on the farmhouse in a steady drumbeat. The white man (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes to close a window. The indigenous woman (Lily Gladstone) stops him. The storm is powerful, she tells him. Give it your attention. It must be paid respect. And so they sit, she meditatively, he uncomfortably, as the rain falls. The sound fills the empty spaces in their awkward conversation, their fumbling flirtation. It’s a simple scene, and yet a key to understanding Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Here’s a movie about a metaphorical storm of violence and conspiracy and desire running through an Oklahoma community in the early 20th century. It gives us space to understand the conditions that created it, and the lasting consequences of it. The setting on the last bleeding vestiges of a wild west finds the moment when horses were traded for cars, fields for oil wells, and bartering for bank accounts. It’s a film about the transition, about beginnings and endings and who gets to lay claim to the land, and to the stories about it. Scorsese, always a director sharply interrogating human fallibility, fragility, and fearsome self-justification, here finds a moral righteousness driving underneath a knowing, provocative, and enveloping complexity. He finds the most staggering shifts of history sit squarely in the pressures of relationships and gestures.

It is a movie about real evil. It paints a damming portrait of the queasy intimate violence of greed and prejudice that built many a wealth in this country. It’s based a true story of an all-American evil—systematic murders in the early 20th century that chip away at the Osage tribe’s rights to Oklahoman oil money. We see a vibrant indigenous community living socially and economically intertwined with a rising white working class of maids and drivers and cooks and farmhands and bootleggers—and the wealthy white grifters rising to take advantage of them all. The wide frame, with ensembles in vintage attire and convincing locale looking for all the world like D.W. Griffith or John Ford had been building classical blocking in CinemaScope from day one, bustles with this activity of a society in flux. Notice how the scenes are full of Native Americans as the movie begins, and as it stretches on and on, the faces in the crowds are whiter and whiter. This time period finds freshly fading into the past the settlers’ mass exterminations and relocations of Native Americans in the poisoned name of Manifest Destiny. Now they’re in a stage of erasure as a more intimate kind—akin to domestic violence or terrorism. (No coincidence that the Klan has a big presence in the territory.) Here we see how a genocidal project can settle into a matter of encroachment. This is extermination by way of taking and taking and taking because it’s there and you want it and you can get away with it.

Scorsese locates deep-rooted pain of this history by making a sweeping movie that runs over three hours with a large cast and contains endless fascinating tributaries and details within its methodical momentum. He’s a filmmaker skilled with hard-charging historical panorama, sweeping scope in which he finds the up-close personal dynamics that drive the larger picture, whether with gangsters, financiers, filmmakers, priests, or Jesus. With Killers of the Flower Moon he situates, at the core, a real personal sense of betrayal. DiCaprio plays a World War I veteran returning stateside to work with his rich uncle (Robert De Niro). The older man is the one who suggests wooing Gladstone’s Osage woman. De Niro has never looked more sinister as an avuncular presence — loudly declaiming his support for the Osage, chummy condescension, while plotting their demise for the inheritance, and the insurance fraud. DiCaprio, for his part, has never let himself look more foolish, scrunching his face with the squint of half-comprehension, muttering and self-deceiving as he woos and eventually marries her and starts a family, without entirely understanding that his uncle hopes to murder the wife’s family to make sure their oil rights are passed to his. Does this husband love his wife more than money? The self-justification as he’s pulled deeper makes every tender moment with Gladstone all the more gripping and complicated and devastating. She plays the most multi-faceted role here, as a strong and observant woman who sees her friends and family die around her and yet is slow to implicate her own husband in her suffering. The stronger the love, the deeper the betrayal.

This is Scorsese at his best, as ever, with an ability to see a complicated world with clear-eyed understanding of its implications and resonances, and the supreme filmmaking skill to bring it to life in all its complexities. His emphatic camera moves and generous staging returns to his subjects of great moral complication and human nuance. His light touch with actors lets them get deeper, with richly textured performances and an easy rapport slipping easily between tenderness and toughness, dark laughs and darker depravity. It’s a story of crime and punishment, love and loss, ritual and art, religion and despair. The forward pull of its accumulating incident invites contemplation of the lingering effects of such tragedy. Here is history that’s not even a century old. We live with the after-effects. His telling overflows with memorable faces and enraging detail. He stages murders with vivid matter-of-fact brutality—a sudden pop, a splatter, a fall. He reveals culprits with a tilt of the camera or a quick, implicating cut. Because he draws out the humanity of its characters—lingering in uncomfortable grey areas with people making grave mistakes and planning, then taking, terrible action—it doesn’t allow us the comforting distance of historical perspective.

This picture has all the dimensions of historical horror, a potential for lurid melodrama held back by the restraint of cold, hard facts. It’s also a film that knows to explore the darkness that lurks in humanity, and the lengths to which people will go to build wealth and deny justice to their fellow man, is to explore its characters in all their dimensions. There’s immediacy to this discomfort. One of the darkest moments is an intimate domestic scene with a fire raging outside, their faces lit by flickering hellish orange through every window. Scorsese heightens the drama with this theatrical staging, and also looks close and sees them sweat. They’re only human, after all. We can’t safely put this in the past and feel better about our present enlightenment. The times may have changed, but the darkness remains. In the end, it’s about who gets to control the story, too. Whose narrative makes it to court, or the papers, or the True Crime retellings? Scorsese knows the importance of perspective, and the power of an image. Here is cinema put to powerful use, each formal flourish or patient development drawing fresh insight. Its final moments are moving and transformative in a way only cinema can accomplish. The film holds the audience in the middle of a storm and demands our patience as we pay it the attention it deserves. One leaves the theater still vibrating from its thunderous force.